Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Holy Land Journal: Into the Armenian Quarter

Peter Lepejian, left, and his father, Vic Lepejian
in their shop in the Armenian Quarter.
A version of"Broken Jerusalem," a collage
 of broken pottery hangs on the wall behind them.
JERUSALEM – On Wednesday, we walked through a heavy black iron door that has been here since 1632. We were given entrance to a corner of Jerusalem few outsiders get to see.

And we heard a story that is nearly hidden from the rest of the world – the story of the Armenians who found refuge here after the 1915 genocide committed against them by the Turks.

The dominant story of the Holy City, for at least the last half-century, has been the conflict between Muslims and Jews.

But that is not the only story of Jerusalem.

St. James Armenian Cathedral
The Armenians have had a continuous presence in Jerusalem for centuries, and the Armenian Church is among the oldest in Christianity, somehow managing to survive persecution, massacres, crusades, and the pressures of existing in this long conflicted part of the world. Armenia was long subsumed into Turkey and the Soviet Union before the Russian-controlled part became an independent nation in 1991 following the collapse of the USSR.

All of that history, like so much other history, seems immediate here in Jerusalem. The Armenians maintain a memorial monument to the genocide, and their national flag flies in their quarter of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – four distinct neighborhoods. The largest, the Muslim Quarter, dominates the northeast and central core of the Old City, while the Christian Quarter is in the northwest corner.

The Jewish Quarter is in the southeast corner nearest the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, the holiest shrine in Judaism.

The Armenian Quarter is a self-contained enclave on the southwest corner adjacent to the Citadel of King David. The center of the Armenian Quarter is the Cathedral of St. James, said to have the relics (bones) of both the St. James who followed Jesus, including his brother, James, who was successor to Jesus as the leader of Christianity immediately following the crucifixion. James was martyred by the Romans in Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, our pilgrim group was divided into teams, each assigned to explore a Quarter and discover all we could in a day. Our team: Lori, Anne, Stephen Carpenter and myself. Our assignment: the Armenian Quarter.

We hit gold in meeting Vic Lepejian, 61, and his son Peter Lepejian, 33. They own a pottery shop just inside the gates to the Armenian Quarter.

“I have Arab friends, Armenian friends, Jewish friends,” said Vic. “We don’t interfere in politics.”

He explained that his parents fled Turkey and the Armenian genocide, eventually settling Joppa in the 1920s in what was then the Palestine ruled by the British in the aftermath of the First World War.

Following the Second World War, Israel declared its independence as a Jewish nation, sparking a war with the surrounding Arab countries. The Lepejians again lost their home, and fled to Jerusalem, considered safer because it has been respected as an international city.

“I was born here. I love here,” said Vic.

Armenian flag above the Armenian Quarter
Note the Frosty the Snowman above door
The Armenian Church patriarch functions much like a mayor of the Armenian Quarter. After the Armenian genocide, and the later Arab-Israeli wars, the patriarch began giving apartments to as many Armenian refugees as he could. At one point there were 70,000 Armenians crammed into the quarter. There are now about 2,000.

Vic said there were 22 members in his high school class of 1968. He is the last one who still lives in Jerusalem. The others have moved to California and Australia.

Peter showed us around the quarter that is his home. Mostly what outsiders and tourists see are a few narrow streets with shops and a few restaurants. But those are on the periphery. To see the real Armenian Quarter, Peter led us through a huge iron door that was installed at the Armenian Cathedral of St. James in 1632. A guard gave us special permission, thanks to Peter, to enter the Armenian neighborhood.

Inside the quarter there are wide plazas, with apartments facing each other. The Patriarch assigns the apartments to families – they don’t pay for their apartments, but they don’t own them either. If a family leaves, the apartments go back to the Patriarch to be assigned to other families.

Children can play freely in the Armenian plazas. "There are no strangers here," said Peter. "We know everyone." Children can be educated through high school without ever having to leave the quarter.

Wide plaza inside the Armenian Quarter
Peter is well-educated, with a master’s degree from Hebrew University. He has chosen to stay, but his younger brother left to get a degree at the University of Kansas, and is now an oil field engineer in Bakersfield.

“Opportunity here – there isn’t much,” said Peter. “Most of the young generation leaves the country to go to Canada or the U.S. to get educated, and then they stay because of the situation here.”

Peter decided to stay to help his father. “I love Jerusalem. I don’t want to leave.”

He married four years ago. His wife teaches sociology and social work at the “Promise School,” with mixed classes of Christians and Muslims.

In one of the oddities of the “situation,” as Peter calls it, the Armenians are given Jordanian identification and travel documents. Jordan had ruled Jerusalem up until 1967 when it withdrew after the “Six Day War.” Peter now has an Israeli passport, while his father has kept his Jordanian travel documents.

I asked Peter what nationality he considers himself. He paused for a moment and replied “an Armenian in Jerusalem.”

When there are wars or civil unrest in Jerusalem, the iron gates close and the Armenians can hunker down in their quarter, as happened in the 1967 war when there was intense shelling of the Jewish Quarter nextdoor. Peter showed us the wells that are around the Armenian Quarter that can be used in an emergency.

In 1987, Palestinians began an uprising against the Israelis. The uprising, known as the “first intifada,” brought a much tighter Israeli security measures and heightened tensions between the ethnic and religious groups in Jerusalem.

Vic Lepejian said he was heart sick at the violence, and then late one night knew what he had to do to express how he felt. He went to his shop the next morning. “I began breaking plates,” he said.

He smashed cups and plates with a Jerusalem motif – and then reassembled them into a collage of pottery. The title of the piece: “Broken Jerusalem.”

That piece eventually went to a collector in Washington DC, and a second one was given to President Obama. A third hangs in his shop.

Lunch of traditional Armenian food
Also on hanging in the shop is a tile showing Jerusalem cut in half by a wall, and an inscription from Ephesians 2:14, “Christ is our peace, he has broken down the dividing wall that is the hostility between us.”

After our tour of the Armenian Quarter, Peter parked us at a restaurant that seemed to be not much from the outside. But inside it was adorned in Armenian art and ceramics and we had possibly the best meal of our trip, with an assortment of Armenian dishes.

We were very blessed -- and full -- pilgrims.


Virginia said...

Interestingly, just before I read your post I learned that Zarouhi Deloian, a life time member of St. Paul's Richmond had died. She was one of a rather large group of Armenians that settled in Richmond and at St. Paul's after the "unpleasantness" - as they would say in Ireland. It seemed like a blessing to get your report so soon after reading her obituary. Sorry about your camera, but glad to hear all of the interesting reports of your trip. As you may have heard, we had an earthquake, but it was pretty much of a non-event.

Ed Tourangeau said...

Delightful! We have a piece of Vic's work, as well as from the other ceramic shop in the Armenian Quarter. Do go to the shop (in the Christian Quarter) of the folks who do the tile work for St. George's, if you get the chance. They have quite a story to tell also.

We think we know your restaurant - had lunch their often while on sabbatical.